What does it take to teach a person to kill?
It's harder than you might think. But, according to critics of violent video games, our children might be training themselves right under our noses.
The idea that video violence relates to real-life violence is hardly new. A number of research studies have created a controversy but offered no clear answer.
Carolyn Rauch, a senior vice president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, says most of these studies fail to establish a link between video violence and real-life violence.
On the other side of the argument, Media-scope, a media watchdog group, agrees with the studies that suggest children who play violent video games are more aggressive.
David Grossman thinks he has the "missing link" that would settle the argument. His conclusions, though largely theoretical, are disturbing enough that some people are taking them seriously.
During more than 20 years in the Army, Grossman worked his way through the ranks from enlisted paratrooper to lieutenant colonel. He taught psychology at West Point and recently retired as a professor of military science at Arkansas State University. His background gave him an interest in how human beings learn to kill.
In his 1995 book, "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society," Grossman drew disturbing parallels between a certain type of video game - the "first person shooter game," in which the player acts from the point of view of a person holding a weapon - and modern methods that military and police organizations use to teach their members how to kill reliably.
The key to the question of video games and violence, says Grossman, can be found in the psychology of killing and some remarkable things the military has learned about it. Fewer than one person in 20 is capable of killing voluntarily, even to save his or her own life, some studies show.
"I think [this] has even been understood for a very long time I ," said Doug Johnson, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and now a research professor at the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute. From the time of the Roman legions and earlier, he says, military organizations have struggled to overcome soldiers' unwillingness to kill.
To overcome this aversion, military organizations have used the technique of drilling to make firing the weapon an automatic response. One of the first successful tools for doing this, said Grossman, was the familiar "pop up" shooting range where "hostile" and "friendly" targets leap at a soldier or police officer, and he or she is expected to make a split-second decision to fire or not. Such training produced an increase in the Army's fire rate, from 10 percent to 15 percent in World War II to more than 90 percent in Vietnam.
More recently, the military has begun to use "virtual" firing ranges that bear more than a passing resemblance to some video games - and that's the problem, says Grossman.
Grossman doesn't argue that these games will automatically turn every child into a robotic killer. But he says that when domestic violence, poverty and the disintegration of families and communities put children in situations where they could kill, the reflex of pulling the trigger that these games might produce is more than troubling.
Wesley Shafer is Grossman's proof of concept. The 19-year-old video fanatic shot and killed the assistant manager of a South Carolina convenience store in April 1997. There was no apparent reason for the killing. A local newspaper account noted that Shafer showed no remorse during his trial.
Grossman, who testified as an expert witness for the defense, said he believed physical and mental abuse from Shafer's father, combined with a conditioned reflex to pull a trigger, turned Shafer into a killer.
Jim Garbarino, a psychologist who teaches at Cornell University, maintains that Grossman's observations are valid - and frightening. "Early maltreatment and rejection primes kids for severe violence," he said.
But the final step that vivid video games take kids through i crucial.
Garbarino says Grossman "is right on the mark" when he says we should be concerned about "point-and-shoot" video games.
The accidental conditioning that could prompt kids to kill without thinking is not limited to those who come from troubled backgrounds. Garbarino points to recent episodes involving seemingly normal children who come from quiet suburban neighborhoods.
Garbarino says the military works under the premise that "you can take any kid I and prepare him to kill."
Bruce Perry, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, contends that Grossman's observations are valid because whatever people practice repetitively inevitably becomes automatic. "That's just the way the central nervous system functions," said Perry, who has done research on the brain.
But Perry says other factors are important. Alcohol and drugs are involved in 80 percent of violent acts, he explains.
Video games - violent or otherwise - could have another pernicious effect. They could stunt childrens' emotional growth by drawing them away from interactions with other humans, he argues.
Other experts disagree with Grossman.
Henry Jenkins, a sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says Grossman is working with false assumptions, one being that children are unable to separate fantasy from reality.
In military training, Jenkins says, trainees have the expectation that they will move from simulation to a real-life practice of killing or being killed. When video games are played at home or in an arcade, the absence of these expectations makes for a very different result, he argues.
Jenkins says that rather than encouraging violence, video games might allow children to act out their aggression in a way that makes them feel more in control of their lives - without resorting to real violence.
But what about the real-life violence that occurs in some inner-city neighborhoods? For kids who face the reality of violence - and the expectation that they might need to defend themselves with deadly force - could such games add to the probability that they would kill?
"At best, it's a factor," Jenkins says, adding that guns, drugs and the despair caused by living in impoverished neighborhoods are bigger factors.
Grossman's argument "really exaggerates and misplaces where the causes really are. I We are going up against video games because we don't want to go up against the NRA," Jenkins said.
Dan Stevens, director of public relations for Sega of America, a video game manufacturer, says blaming video games for teen violence amounts to scapegoating. He says no link between video games and violence has been proved. In fact, sports games outsell violent games by more than 3-to-1, he says.
The issue has become a crusade for Grossman. Recently, he traveled to Washington to speak before the American Trial Lawyers Association, where he stated that it's time to launch a legal attack on the entertainment industry similar to the legal action besieging the tobacco industry.
Kenneth B. Chiacchia is a free-lance science writer who lives in Pittsburgh.
Pub Date: 7/26/98